Interview: Taylor Brown, Co-founder of Fivetran

by Jerome Knyszewski
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Taylor Brown, co-founder & COO of Fivetran, talks about how to take a company from good to great

At the Y Combinator in 2013, Taylor Brown and George Fraser were just two friends sharing an apartment who wanted to make a product that people wanted. Almost two years passed before they got their first customer, but now the company they founded, Fivetran, has grown to a team of 80 employees that serves nearly 500 customers.

For Fivetran, Taylor Brown and George Fraser have also raised almost $5 million. The company has to thank its high revenue and great seed investors for contributing to their stellar growth in the intervening years. In 2019 and 2020, the company had begun to build out “even more sources, as well as more data-management features needed by the biggest companies.”

Taylor Brown and Fraser built Fivetran to “solve the hardest part of building a data-driven company: centralizing all your data in one place.” They believe that data-driven companies are the wave of the future. According to them, these companies are “more transparent…better places to work, and they’re more likely to win.” This is why data management is important for a company, although data centralization remains a “famously complex problem.”

Over the past five years, Taylor Brown and the Fivetran team have been able to “overcome that complexity with automation and offer a turn-key solution to our customers.” Currently, Taylor Brown works as the Chief Operating Officer of Fivetran.

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Jerome Knyszewski: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Taylor Brown: Our first principles helped us to build an innovative product that solves customers’ problems in an automated way. We also drove a sales focused culture from early on.

Jerome Knyszewski: Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Taylor Brown: You really have to love it, and be surrounded by people who you really trust and believe in.

Jerome Knyszewski: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Taylor Brown: After completing the prestigious Y-Combinator accelerator program, my longtime friend, George Fraser, and I co-founded Fivetran in 2012. Along the journey of building our business, we were able to learn from our past experiences, as well as from one another. One of our key mottos was and still continues to be, “let’s not overcomplicate it,” and that helped us simplify and streamline things. George has been a great leader for not only myself, but also for the wider team at Fivetran.

In addition to George, early partners, such as Looker and Snowflake, helped Fivetran get to where we are today and learn key lessons.

Jerome Knyszewski: What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

Taylor Brown: It can still be very hard, and usually not long lasting if you have to “motivate” people manually. If there is a standstill in the business, it’s likely because you either 1) have the wrong people on the bus (the right people don’t need to be motivated) or 2) have a problem with the business. Often 1 leads to 2.

Jerome Knyszewski: Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Taylor Brown: Challenge is the way! Challenges in the economy, market, world, etc. while they can be hard, they can also create opportunities to improve. The reality is that if there are problems that your business is facing due to external factors, then usually your competitors are facing the same issues. It’s a great time to make the changes that you have been procrastinating to do, but that is right for the business.

For example, author Jim Collins talks about Kimberly-Clark having to sell the paper mills (their core business for many years) because it was not profitable anymore. This is where you have to be bold and do the obvious thing, but not the easy thing. He used an analogy of the paper mill being akin to having cancer in your hand, and having the guts to cut your hand off to save the rest of your body. You have to see any challenge as an opportunity to continue to make your business better.

Jerome Knyszewski: In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Taylor Brown: Focus. From a 2 person company to a 500 person company, there is always a challenge on “what do we focus our efforts towards?” This is the single most challenging thing to get right. When you’re small, it’s easy to just focus on the wrong things, and not listen to customers and not ever get product-market fit. When you’re a larger company, it’s easy to let politics, or lack of discipline seep in, causing you to easily start focusing on way too many things, and seize to focus on the one thing that you need.

Jim Collins’ hedgehog concept is helpful in this, asking:

  1. What can you be the best in the world at?
  2. What are you passionate about (love doing)?
  3. What can you make money doing?

If you stay intensely focused on these 3 things, and continue to reevaluate, then you will be ok. For instance, with Kimberly-Clark they had #2 and #3 for the paper mills, but they lacked #1. They could no longer be best in the world at this, so they cut this part of their business to refocus their efforts in another area where they could compete for #1, and have #2 and #3.

Jerome Knyszewski: Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Taylor Brown: Amazing customer service starts with the product. At Fivetran, similar to a company like Apple, we work to wow our customers with the product itself. The majority of our decisions have been made for the customer. We take a mountain of complexity that our customers usually deal with, and we handle it for them in the best possible way. Apple was a pioneer in this — removing configuration options. They focused on making the interface so dead simple and intuitive with no options to mess things up, enabling the user to ultimately focus on high value things — living their life connected to the rest of the world, capturing photos and videos. In our case, we completely remove this complexity, so that our customers can focus on driving their business forward.

Outside of the product, having a great customer experience means helping the customer when they have issues or the product is not working. We aim to be swift, polite, and helpful. Many companies miss on the third item, helping the customer in a human way. This is table stakes in the world today, but unfortunately, many companies miss this.

Jerome Knyszewski: What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Taylor Brown: Having grown up with social media, I don’t see it as a risk, but rather as another way to connect with our audience. When the telephone first came out, people were scared that it would invade the privacy of their homes and community. After a few short years, people realized that the telephone was an amazing way to connect and communicate with friends and family, actually extending the home and community. I feel the same way about social media — it’s a communication tool, that when used correctly, is an extremely important way to engage with your audience.

Jerome Knyszewski: What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Taylor Brown:

  1. Focusing on the wrong things, such as not talking to users.

  2. Getting in their own way. Unfortunately, ego and the need to hold power over others is the biggest reason that companies fail after they find product-market fit. It’s a shame because there are so many dollars put towards good ideas that fail due to founders driving their own business into the ground.

  3. Sound fundamentals. Many founders, or CEOs, just don’t follow sound business fundamentals. This is an absolute must. CEOs and founders who are very innovative try to innovate in EVERY aspect of their business. The thing is that you can only afford to innovate in select areas in your business — and that should be your product.

Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?

Taylor Brown: You can find me on Twitter, @taylorwcbrown, or on LinkedIn.. Another great place is Fivetran’s website, Fivetran.com, or our blog at Fivetran.com/blog.

Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring and informative. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this interview!

Taylor Brown: Thank you!

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